“I’m a drummer first”
The success of drummer/singer Phil Collins has been phenomenal. He has played drums with Genesis for 12 years, and for the past seven years, he has also been the lead singer of that hugely successful band.
In 1981, Collins released his first solo album, Face Value, which immediately zoomed to the top of the charts. The year 1982 saw the release of his second top-selling album, Hello, I Must Be Going, and his first solo tour of the States.
His touring band included Chester Thompson on drums, Daryl Stuermer on guitar, Peter Robinson on keyboards, Mo Foster on bass, and The Phoenix Horns: Louis Satterfield, Don Myrick , Michael Harris and Rhamlee Michael Davis from Earth, Wind & Fire. Besides singing and playing drums, Phil also plays keyboards in this band.
Collins had no problem in choosing Chester Thompson for the job, as Thompson, along with guitarist Stuermer, plays in the Genesis touring band. The three core members of Genesis are Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks.
Because he is the focal point in both his and the Genesis live shows, Collins can only play drums for a quarter of the time in concert. In the studio, however, he is the sole drummer.
He has recently branched out even further, becoming a producer. In that capacity he has worked with John Martyn, Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad from Abba, and Adam Ant. He also produces his own solo albums and is co-producer, with his fellow band members, of Genesis. The production offers have been pouring in, but with his commitments to Genesis and his various other projects, it’s hard to accommodate everyone.
As if this weren’t enough, Phil has plenty of session work to fill in any spare time that he might have. It’s a very busy schedule, but Phil seems to thrive on it. When I first visited him on his American tour around Christmas time, he was looking ahead to the next year and a half, which had already been planned out for him.
“Originally, L.A. was the last gig of the tour,” he said. “But because the album is doing very well and it and the single keep going up, and the band is together and free, we’re going to come back out on the road. I’m going on holiday for two weeks because this tour has taken a lot out of me. I’m not the kind of person who ever felt I needed a holiday, but I know I must. I’m losing my voice all the time and I’m nervy. I’ve only ever had two holidays, and that started last year and the year before last. Up until then, I never took holidays and I’m quite happy as a result of it. But, I quite like a couple of weeks in the sun looking healthy.
“So, I’m going to come out for another three weeks to play places that haven’t played yet. Otherwise, I won’t get a chance to do it until mid ’84, because next year, starting on March 1, Genesis is doing an album. Then, when we finish, we’re going to come out on the road in November, when the record comes out. We’ll have Christmas off and then come out again for another month or two. Really, I’m saying that I already know what I’m doing up until March ’84. Of course, if we don’t hit it off in the rehearsal room, then we’ll all be free from March 2nd. So, there’s always that, but I don’t think that’ll happen.
“I want to produce an album for the horns. I will be touring with Robert Plant this summer, and Frida wants me to do her second album. I’ll maybe produce an album with Peter Townshend, which I’d love to do, but it’s very, very vague because I haven’ spoken to the man himself about it. So far, I’ve played on everything I’ve produced. It’s the frustration thing of not really wanting to go through somebody else. If it was a band, would be a little bit different.”
Despite what sounds like a grueling schedule, Collins says that he prefer to be busy. “Better that way than saying nobody wants you to do anything. There are lots of things I could do. But, when the band is together, it takes a long time. I’ve chosen to us this time for my own album; for my own tour.”
Having several projects going on at the same time is nothing new for Collins. At the same time Phil was playing with Genesis in the early ’70s, he was listening to such groups as the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That led him to a rather unusual situation: While still fulfilling his commitments to Genesis, he joined an experimental jazz/funk band called Brand X.
“I joined Brand X because I was getting a bit stifled just doing Genesis. I found it very hard to get the band to play the kind of music that I was listening to. There’s also a side of me that likes the Buddy Rich Big Band, which I was really trying to play. And with Genesis, if you listen to ‘Foxtrot,’ there’s an element of that in my playing, with pushing accents and stuff. I basically joined Brand X because I was getting a bit frustrated with not being able to get that side me out. Brand X started off more of funk band than a jazz band. We were doing stuff like The Average White Band; not as commercial, but that kind of groove.
“I wasn’t writing a lot for Genesis. I was doing more arranging and playing. My strength was seeing other people’s songs in different lights. So, it was a chemistry thing. Although I wasn’t a writer, I was an important part. Being in both bands was very appetizing. Eventually, Brand X started to get more interested in doing some fusion stuff. It was a free group. That was in stark contrast to Genesis’ rigidity.”
It was through working with Brand X that Phil met other musicians who invited him to play on their sessions. “I became very, very busy. The initial reaction was that you can’t be in two groups, because no one does that. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know who made that rule up, but I’ve got X amount of time; I’ll divide it X amount of ways.’
“For instance, when Genesis was doing The Lamb, Eno was upstairs and he met Peter [Gabriel]. Peter wanted to feed his vocals through some of Eno’s synthesizers. So, he came down. As payment for that, I was sent upstairs to play on Eno’s record, which was a track on Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. We hit it off well, so when he did Another Green World, he rang me and Percy [Jones from Brand X] up and I did all the drums on that.”
From there, Phil moved on to sessions with John Cale, Rod Argent and two concept albums with Robin Lumley. “I did lots of sessions at Trident. Dave Hentschel, who was engineering Elton John, was doing sessions. He’d ring me up. I knew lots of people. I’d been around a lot more than the other guys in the band and I did everything I was asked to do. I never got bored with Genesis that way because Genesis was just something different that I did, and it still is the same way. I mean, I’ve got more of a vested interest in Genesis now because I get more of me out in Genesis. A third of the music is me. Also, I’m very responsible for the way the band is on stage because I’m the one who’s giving it to the audience. So, it’s a little bit different now than the way it was. Even so, I think if I was just in one project, I would get a little frustrated. Especially now, since I’ve got my own thing going as well.”
But what about Brand X? “Brand X is sleeping. Everyone lives in different parts of the world and I don’t think we’ll get back together. Brand X was getting a little bit too organized. Genesis was getting freer and Brand X was getting tighter. We ended up meeting in the middle. There was no real reason for me to do both.”
Phil also became frustrated with Brand X’s inability to play as an ensemble. “When the early Mahavishnu would hook into something and they’d go away, they’d all come back—BANG!—into something that would blow you away. Brand X used to sort of hook into something and go away and never come back. So, it was a bit frustrating.”
One thing it did prove to him, however, was that he could do more than one project. Collins now feels that he can go into as many activities as he wants. “People are really surprised about the amount of time that I must have to do all these projects. But, really, I don’t find it a strain. I’m not on my last legs or anything. It’s just attitude, I guess, whether you want to get in there and make as much money as you can so you don’t have to do anything else, or whether you just keep going because you love what you’re doing. I’m more in the last category.”
In 1980, Phil played on Peter Gabriel’s third album, which proved to be a new experience. “On that album, he didn’t want to use cymbals and I said, ‘Okay.’ I know Peter very, very well and I said, ‘I know you’re a man of princi ple, Peter, but there are times when cymbals are a necessity. You’ve just got to have a couple.’ He said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want any cymbals. I don’t want any metal on the al bum at all.’ So, I thought, ‘Well, okay. I’ll go along with it; it’s your record.’ I still think that maybe there are a couple of instances where it wouldn’t have made much difference, but as a principle, I went along with it.
“Most of the things that sound like synthesized drums are just drums that were treated. ‘Intruder’ was just my black kit in the live room at the Townhouse in London with compressors and noise gates. I wish I could actually put into words the way it happened, because it was quite amazing. It was the first time I ever met Hugh Padgham. Steve Lillywhite was the producer, Hugh was engineer, and Peter and myself were literally just mucking about. I was playing around my drums in this live room and Hugh was setting everything up. I went up and hit some and, because of the compression, it elongated the decay. It clips the top; it lengthens it. So, if you hit a snare drum, especially in a live room with a lot of ambience, then you get a gate to cut off. What I was doing was playing ‘dssshh, dssshh, dsssh, dssshh, dsssh, dssshh,’ which we called the ‘face hugger.’ So, it was mucking about with sounds like that, making them sound like synthesized sounds, but in fact they’re not. They were all played like that. They were all played at the same time as the sound, as opposed to not having that sound to play with.
“I did the same thing with Frida’s album. There’s a song that’s been played on the radio a lot called ‘I Know There’s Something Going On,’ and that is a similar way of doing it. You get the sound and you play with it. After there’s a gap, you play the next beat and that defines what your part is.
“Now, I’m more interested in doing that, although not in every instance. It’s like what I did with Robert Plant’s album. You get all that heavy Zeppelin compression. If you’re playing with it, you’re bouncing off a sound and then you’re playing with it. So you don’t do a fast tom-tom fill. You play it and then, if you’ve got a pair of ears, you’ll hear what to do next.
“I’ve thought a lot about who is responsible for that sound. I don’t think it was Steve Lillywhite because I was there and I know who was controlling the board. It wasn’t Peter because Peter was just sitting there enjoying it. He was the one who put his finger on the button and said, ‘Phil, I like that. Can you do that for ten minutes?’ So, I played it to a drum machine so it stayed steady for ten minutes.
“It was really me and Hugh, be cause he built the studio almost. He’s one of the Townhouse first engineers. It’s an SSL board; each module has got its own compressor and noise gate built into it. He knew the board back wards and he knew what could be done. Then again, you could take that into the same studio with another drummer and it wouldn’t sound the same.
“It was definitely a melting pot of everybody’s ideas. If ever I start to sound egotistical, I always think, ‘Stop it, boy,’ because I’m not at all. But, there were some things which I think I had a lot to do with, and when In the Air came out, people said, ‘Oh, it’s the old Gabriel sound.’ But I said, ‘It’s me on the Gabriel record; my drums. It’s my ideas,’ you know. It’s basically my sound and I’m very, very proud.”
But what did Phil do with his hi-hat foot while playing? “Well, I had the hi-hat pedal there, but no cymbals on it. I did that just so I could at least feel at home. We had a tom-tom where the cymbal would have been and there was one track, which he didn’t use, where it was a tambourine instead of cymbal. It sounded really good. It was just putting something else there instead of the cymbal.
“It was very interesting. I felt that it was definitely a surge forward for me. You sort of cruise for six months. Suddenly, something happens and you go into overdrive for a couple of months and then you cruise for another six. Then suddenly, you go into overdrive again; be it a personal relationship or something else. That happened to me with that album. But, it was very interesting. I felt that it was a very brave album for him and I feel a part of it because I helped it.
“Hugh is a wonderful engineer. He’s a bass player and he’s into drums. He’s just got a general overall feel for something new. He’s a fresh face. Let’s face it, there are so many different sounds out there, it’s good to get a few people who are just coming up that have something different to do with the same old instruments.”
Concerning his own instruments, Collins states that he is a “meat and potatoes man” when it comes to new drum shapes. “A drumkit should look like a drumkit. The Staccato and the Octoban things, they’re tools to use, but I mean, the Staccato drumkits look like a pair of shorts. That’s an area of drum technology that leaves me cold.”
He has, however, been using drum machines. “When they first started and all you had was a bossa nova, a waltz or a rhumba, I thought, ‘That sounds terrible.’ But, there are so many things that can be done now. I use them at home for writing. I’ve got four or five different types.
“At the beginning of the Roland drum machine period, when we were in Japan with Genesis, we got the first three off the production line; the little square-box ones. So, everybody’s writing suddenly got very spacious, because when you’re writing on piano, you tend to fill in all the gaps, but with the rhythm going, you leave a few holes. Peter Gabriel also got one and I guess there are a couple of tracks on his third album where he uses it.
“I’ve got an English machine called The Movement, which is like the English Linn. I’ve got the original model, but six months ago, they promised me the new one in a week. I’m ‘top of the list,’ supposedly. It’s like a typewriter with a screen. It’s for a person who’s not very good with manuals, which I’m not. It makes it very easy. ‘First, you do this.’ Right. ‘Then you do that.’
“You call it a name. You set how many beats to the bar you want and it makes it simpler. It just comes up on a screen like a computer. They’ve remodeled that and they’re waiting for the parts from Japan. I’ve made my own little chips, so I’ve got my ‘In the Air’/’Intruder’ sound on my own chips, which will be in this new machine later on. Now that, to me, will mean that I’ll be able to take my eighttrack stuff at home ever further. On both of my albums, all the backing tracks have been done on eight track at home. ‘In the Air’ was just the drum machine and keyboards that I recorded on my eight track, and then copied onto 24 track. That was done with the original Roland drum machine; the old square box. ‘In the Air’ was written on that, as well as ‘This Must Be Love’ and ‘Hand in Hand.’
“I have that on stage and also the new Roland. Rather than get one of the newer drum machines to do it, all those sounds are so different now, I still use the original one for the tunes that were written on it.
“Obviously, having my own chips at home means that I can actually get my drum sound at home and it will be me. It won’t be someone who sounds like me. The advance in that kind of area has been good. I think drummers shouldn’t really be threatened by it. I think drum machines are as good as the people who program them. I don’t think that drummers will ever be redundant because you’ll need a good drummer to be able to program the thing to make it sound like a good drummer. There’s no way you can get around it.
“I think a tune like ‘Thru These Walls’ is so slow, that if you didn’t have something like the drum machine to play with, it would wander too much. So, I use Chester and the drum machine on stage. For a song like ‘If Leaving Me Is Easy,’ which is slow, there’s a slightly more constant drum machine part on tape when I played the piano part. Some of what I’ve done is just write the drum machine part, which is probably fuller than any part that I would ever want to use. But, it means you can take it out and suddenly you’ve got this amazingly spacious groove!”
As far as his acoustic kit, Collins has switched brands a few times. I asked him why. “I don’t want to badmouth Premier because I’ve still got two of their kits and I still play them. One is the black concert-tom kit which I used to use on the road with Genesis and I used on all the albums; even my new album. I basically went with Premier in the first place because they were the only company that was interested in offering me a deal about seven or eight years ago. They were British and it was easier to get parts for. There was a man called Eddie Haynes who then left and went to work for Zildjian, then left Zildjian and is now with Sabian, which is why I now use Zildjian and Sabian as well as Paiste sometimes. I’ve got about 150 different cymbals for all occasions.
“By comparison to Premier, Pearl are heavier drums. They’ve got that hard sound which is like ‘In the Air.’ Pearl certainly has been good on the service side of it. And, in the end, that’s what it comes down to because a drum sounds like a drum when all is said and done.
“Recently, Gretsch got in touch with me and asked if I would be one of their endorsees. While I have been very happy with Pearl, I’m going to change to Gretsch because my first proper kit was Gretsch and they’ve always had a lovely sound. So, now I’ll be playing Gretsch, although I’ll keep the Pearl kits and they’ll still be used on different albums, depending on what things I do.
“What I used on my own tour and on the Genesis tour were 8″, 10″, 12″, 14″, 16″ and 18” tom-toms. What I’ll be using on the Plant tour will hope fully be the same sizes, but Gretsch drums.
“The skins are Remo Ambassadors. I’ve actually just started using the rough-coat Emperor on the snare drum because I was going through a skin a night; pitting it, not breaking it. I’d be playing it on a wood drum. So, I guess maybe I’m trying to get more out of it. I’d feel the skin and it was just like the Andes. There were pits all over it. I couldn’t believe it was the skins. It must have been me just putting too much into it. So, on this tour, I started using the heavier one which has been fine.
“I’m using a 20″ bass drum. I’ve always used a 20″ bass. I’ve got a Premier kit with a 22″ bass drum, but usually it’s just the 20”. The first proper drum kit that I had also had a 20″ bass drum. Not being a big bloke, that seemed to be a normal size. I sit low.
“I kind of collect cymbals and drums. I don’t go around antique shops or anything, but I’ve still got the first Gretsch kit I had. I’ve got this eight, double-headed tom-tom Premier kit with a 22″ bass drum. I’ve still got the black kit which is what I call the ‘In the Air’ concert-tom kit. I always wanted a brand new Gretsch kit and I bought one a few years ago. They’re nine ply, I think. They’re quite heavy drums, actually. I’ve also got an 18” bass drum for jazz stuff.
“I use single-headed drums a lot of the time when we’re playing. You see, with Genesis, you’re playing big con certs and double-headed drums don’t cut. I’ve got a lot of confidence in our sound engineer; we’ve known him for years. But, I feel that if I’m playing a 20,000 seater, then it’s as much down to me to fill that as it is the sound engineer. The chances are that he’ll be thinking about the guitar when I’m doing something. So, I’d rather have the sound coming from what I’m doing. A couple of tours ago, I had a period where I was using double-headed drums. They sounded great to me and they probably sounded good on tape, but to the audience, they just didn’t project across the front of the stage.
“I have the same opinion of Chester’s drums. It’s up to him what he uses, but on this tour we talked about whether it should be concert toms or it should be double-headed drums. Because of the kind of music that I’m writing, it made sense for his to have a warmer sound. With Genesis, though, I think I’d rather see him using concert toms again because they cut and they’ve got a bite and a bark to them.
“I do a lot of gigs with John Martyn and that music is a lot looser. It’s a lot more jazz than anything else, so I’ll use a softer thing. You want to have a bit of feedback from the drum. More often, I’ll use double-headed drums than if I’m playing with Robert Plant where I’ll use something that’s really heavy. I believe there are different things for different occasions.
“But, at the moment, I generally use single-headed drums, which I didn’t think I’d ever like to do. Ten years ago, I was a double-headed drummer. But, in the last few years, it’s been mainly single headed, especially in the studio.
“I believe Bill Bruford’s comment he made years ago to me was, there’s no point in me getting a new drumkit because I’ll only sound the same as I do on this one, just as he sounds the same on any drumkit that he touches. And, to a large extent, that’s true.”
Years ago, when Phil was touring with Genesis, it looked as though his hi-hat was sitting in the middle of his kit. He clarified, “I used to use eight tom-toms, you see, six on the top and two on the bottom. I was doing so much singing with Genesis that I felt a bit ostentatious having all these drums. Also, with the early Genesis, I used to have four timbales on my right. Although I was sitting at a regular drumkit, with four timbales, from the audience it looked like I was sitting amongst a whole lot of drums and my hi-hat was in the middle. Eventually I removed a couple of the middle-sized drums, a 13″ and a 15″, so that I just went 8″ to 10″, 12″ to 14″, and 16″ to 18″. It covered the same area, but didn’t look quite as ostentatious. For someone like Chester, you know, with two bass drums and about 15 toms, that’s fine because he plays them all night.”
Phil worries that with his recent success as a singer, people may tend to forget that he is a drummer first and foremost. “Whatever else I am, I’m a drummer first,” he says. “I’ve been playing since I was five and my ambition was to be respected by other musicians, not to be wealthy or to be successful. I mean, that was nice, too, if it was going to happen. But, it was really to be respected by other musicians who say, ‘I like what you’re doing.’
”I think that the actual singing and writing has affected my attitude towards what the drums should be doing. But, I was getting into that even before Peter left, really. I was just realizing that some of the songs that Genesis did should have a straight thing behind them instead of me flailing around the kit out of context. I was just trying to add a color to the music in the same way that keyboards add color.
“I think that I sing like a drummer. I sing the words much more rhythmically than a singer does. There’s a song that Genesis did called ‘In the Cage.’ The lyrics are almost irrelevant to the backing track. Having not heard the original version in such a long time, when we actually came ’round to doing it, I treated each word like a percussive thing so that it all fit in with the percussive track. I think the singing of it has changed to fit in with the drum—with the rhythmic side of it—rather than the other way around.”
I asked Phil to describe his playing style. “I’ve never really seen me. I’ve seen the Genesis videos which are usually with me standing out front. I watched the show on video last night and I ran back a couple of times when I did the solo. It was like 45 seconds to a minute, because I’m not a solo man at all. I was quite surprised as to how together it looked. I mean, I sit there and my arms move, but I don’t, as opposed to some drummers with body movement and all that. Bruford, I think, always looks good when he plays. He seems aware of his sitting position.
“I used to say in the old days that if the power stopped, I should be doing something interesting enough for people to listen to until the power came back on. That’s not to say something that’s complicated, but just something that’s got some kind of essence to it, whether it’s just a straight Zeppelin-type four-to-the-bar thing, or whatever, that should be just right musically for it to carry itself.
“My playing has changed an awful lot in the last two or three years, I think. Even on something like the encore tune on my tour which was called, ‘And So To F,” which is a Brand X tune. That’s in nine, but rather than trying to do as much as I can in nine, I tend to try to get some kind of motion down with the thing. I think of it as adding the musical thing to the tune, as opposed to just a rhythmic content. I suppose everybody thinks they do that, but a long time ago I stopped throwing myself around the drumkit to impress. When you start to groove, it should just be there.
“When I first saw Simon Phillips years and years ago, he sat like Billy Cobham; he played like Billy Cobham. He bounced up and down like Cobham when he played and he stood up and went around his tomtoms like Billy Cobham. But, he did it in the tunes that really didn’t call for it at all. Even Cobham was doing that when I saw him with George Duke and Alphonso Johnson, and the audience would get up and applaud. But, I mean, that’s not the point. Playing that way just occasionally is more in keeping with what the tune is and it’s something you can’t buy. You have to just learn. Now, of course, Simon is playing beautifully.
“Genesis helped me a lot in that respect because we’ve always played tunes, you know. Therefore, we’re playing something like ‘Squonk’ one minute, which is really me in my John Bonham hat, and the next minute we’re playing something like ‘Los Endos,’ which is me in my Airto hat. So, it’s constantly changing styles to fit the tune and trying to do something a bit more musical than just doing everything on every tune. And nowadays you get stuff like ‘Intruder,’ which is ten minutes of exactly the same thing. That, to me, is harder to do and is much more interesting to listen to than ten minutes of a fusion piece with everybody flailing around the drumkit. It has something else to offer. I’m more into that, I think, than anything else now.
“The reason I’m never ashamed or embarrassed to admit that I put on a Keith Moon hat for a couple of tunes or a John Bonham hat for certain things is purely because, I think, I’ve been playing such a long time that my personality as a player is pretty well established. No matter what my influence is, it still comes out sounding a little bit like me, I hope. There is stuff like ‘Thru These Walls’ on my album, which is pure Ringo’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ period. You know, all those little drags…’ da, da, da, dit, dit, doom, doom, dom, doom, doom, Let me take you down…’ and I still sound like me. Maybe people don’t think that I listen to Ringo.”
In our last interview with Phil, he said that he didn’t play solos. I asked him about the philosophy behind that. “I’m not very good at it,” he replied. “There’s this tune called ‘The West Side,’ which is an ensemble piece, really. Pete Robinson said to me, ‘You should stretch out a little bit. It’s a great vehicle.’ I’m saying, ‘Peter, I can’t do that. I’m not capable of doing it.” He said, ‘Well, try it.’ It wasn’t a question of everyone stopping and me doing a solo, you know, ‘Lights on Phil.’ Everybody was just cruisin’ and then just came back in. I sort of soloed over the tune, which is what I did with Brand X on a track called ‘Nuclear Burn.’ Robin held a chord and it was just an interlude which could be as long or as short as it felt at the moment of time. But, I’m really pleased now that Pete pushed me into it because it ain’t bad, actually.
“What I don’t like, and what bores me stiff with any kind of solos, are the cliches. When I saw Bonham play before he joined Led Zeppelin, he did a solo and it was the first solo I’ve ever stood up for and applauded. He was wonderful. He was doing all the crossover stuff with his hands; no sticks! It was very new then. He used to be a bricklayer, so his hands were as hard as rocks. He was doing all this stuff, and triplets on the bass drum, and I couldn’t believe it.
“Buddy Rich is still one of the masters. When he does a fill; perfect, you know. No matter what you like or don’t like about Buddy Rich, there’s still something there that is definitive of its time.
“But it’s so bloody boring to see someone just doing rolls with the bass drum, or throwing a stick up and catching it, or things like that, you know. It’s so predictable. No matter how good the solo, it’s predictable that you start there and it’s going to get to there. You’re disappointed because they don’t realize how predictable it is, either. It’s pandering to the masses, really. Kids like to see it, but they’re not going to want anything better unless you give them something better. I can watch Tony Williams do a drum solo because it will blow me away. Either you got it or you ain’t. That’s what it boils down to.
“There’s never been a place in a Genesis show for a drum solo, apart from when the equipment’s broken down, and even then, I used to sort of think of a one-handed drum solo, which was ‘.shhh-chh-chhshhh’ with the hi-hat. That was all. Peter would say, ‘And now we have the wonderful, one-handed drum solo. Notice how he does this all with one hand.’ That was all there was. It’s not a solo, obviously. It was like a parody on the drum solo because there was absolutely nothing going on, but people would still watch it.
“I’m not knocking it because I’ll never be good at it. Occasionally, it’s great to see Billy Cobham or Buddy Rich. But, rock ‘n’ roll solos as such, especially the drummers with six tom-toms and two bass drums… It should be enough in the music. If you can’t do what you can do in the music, then you’re playing the wrong kind of music anyway. I still stand by the concept that if you’ve got to play four all night, that’s what you should do. Then, don’t have a 20-minute drum solo where you suddenly take all your clothes off and live. That’s why I don’t do drum solos.”
In Chester Thompson’s interview (January, 1983, MD), he said that Phil played like an American, but with an English interpretation. Collins commented, “Well, it works the other way around, you see? I don’t like a lot of English music. When I tried to find an English drummer after Bill Bruford left Genesis, I was really stuck for someone to play with. I bought a whole bunch of albums by English people and I couldn’t find anybody. I was listening to a lot of black drummers and I was trying to get that side of music into Genesis to try and make Genesis a bit more earthy; a bit more funky. So, a lot of what I was doing was coming from the heads of Bernard Purdie, Billy Cobham, Freddie White, etc.
“When Chester came into the group, there were exceptions, but it was like he was trying to interpret what I was doing, which was an interpretation, really, of what he did in the first place, right? Which meant that it had got second-or third-hand removed and there was no point. I said, ‘Listen, forget what I do. You do what you would do naturally, because that’s probably what I would have done anyway.’ But then, there are other things, like the Ringo side of it and John Bonham, where he couldn’t play like that. He can now. So, you get some things like ‘Afterglow,’ which is just a straight walking, regular Ringo thing. And Chester was playing it like a black funk drummer. I said, ‘No, no, no. Just don’t play so much with that.’ So, he’s come ’round to the other way a little bit. We actually sort of met in the middle.”
In that same article, Chester stated that perhaps American drummers tend to embellish more, whereas English drummers leave more spaces. What did Phil think of that idea? “I think that depends on the individual. A few years ago, when Michael Walden and I sat down and talked, he said that American drummers can probably play better than English drummers, but they haven’t got the music to play. Whereas the English drummers have the music. That makes a little bit of sense to me.
“This is a general comment because, obviously, there are going to be exceptions. You have amazing virtuoso American players, but in England there’s usually far more stress on the music. I thought it was interesting coming from an American musician like him who can throw himself around the drumkit with amazing dexterity. I guess he was also trying to write at that time, so he was noticing that maybe as a writer, he would have to play less.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to do this interview was that I felt that people are forgetting about me as a drummer. That’s my first and last love, really. Everything else can revolve around it. But, I think when you have written a song, you have much more of a concept of the one way it should be done. Some people say, ‘Isn’t it nice to get the other person’s interpretation of it?’ In some instances, it can. But in other instances, it can actually take you away from the initial tune.
“I’ve had that problem coming out on the road with nine people trying to recreate what I did mostly on my own in the studio. I mean, obviously, the horns did their stuff, but I did the keyboards—even the bass pedals on some of the tracks—and the drums. And, here I am. Chester’s playing the drums instead of me. Pete’s playing the keyboards instead of me. Hopefully, it becomes something else. But it should never become something that is not as potent as it started off.
“My becoming a better writer of music has changed my idea of what drums should be and what drums should do. It’s so important to be aware of the song. Steve Gadd did four tracks on Tony Banks’ new album. He spent more time in the control room listening to the song than actually playing. He listened to it four or five times—’Let’s hear it again’ …’ Let’s hear it again’—so he understood the song. Then, he went in and played to the song. That’s important.”
Collins feels that he gets almost as much enjoyment from playing with Thompson as he does playing on his own. “The high points of the show for me are points when we’re both playing together. I think that the blending of the two is something that even I am surprised at—how strong it is. When I listen to the tape, I think, ‘That’s good. That really does sound like a perfectly synchronized machine.’ There’s an understanding where if someone starts off something, then the other person backs off a little bit. Maybe you can’t do triplets over four. You’ve got to have a lot more discipline and know what you can do and what you can’t do. We work some things out in the ‘Los Endos’ solo. We have reference points, and between those reference points, then we’re open.
“Ever since I saw Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, I loved the way they played together. And, Ralph Humphrey and Chester with Frank Zappa were really good. But, when I became the singer with Genesis, I said that I really wanted to play on the albums. We often thought about getting Daryl in to play guitar, and Chester over to play with me. But when you’re there and you’re actually recording, you kind of want to do it all yourself. So, if there are ever two drum parts, I usually double and play them all myself, although that doesn’t often happen.
“It’s the concept of having it as a writer. It’s like when you’ve written something or been part of a group that’s written something, you know how it should go. That’s why I produce my own albums.
“You don’t get Leonardo da Vinci sitting here telling a bloke over there with a pot of paint, ‘Put a bit of red up there.’ Because that bloke will put a bit of red where he thinks it should go, as opposed to Leonardo da Vinci getting off his ass and doing it, which is where it should go. There’s an art to someone who does something personally, rather than gives directions. That’s why it would be frustrating to have a leader of a group who constantly has to try and explain his ideas to other musicians to play. Luckily, in Genesis, we all write the stuff. Therefore, I’m responsible for what I’ve written and that’s what it is.”
Contrary to a lot of people these days, Collins thinks that the state of the rock music business is quite healthy. “There’s an awful lot going on,” he said. “It’s a lot healthier that it was three or four years ago. The new bands that are around now may sound very similar to each other, but at least they sound better than the bands who sounded similar to each other three or four years ago.
“When the punk thing started, I didn’t personally feel that threatened by it because Genesis has got a very loyal following of people who like Genesis music. You’d be surprised at how many punk bands like Genesis but won’t admit it. I met Topper Headon at the airport a couple of years ago and he came up to me and said, ‘My name’s Topper Headon. I play with The Clash.’ Then he hesitated and looked around. ‘I think you’re really good.” But, he had to make sure that no one else was looking, right? Then I did ‘Face Value’ at the Townhouse. The Dead Kennedys were watching television. I walked through and the bloke says, ‘That’s Phil Collins. Ahhh, I’ve been a fan of theirs forages.’
“You can’t make money nowadays; you can’t exist as a group doing what we’re doing because we’ve established something over the years. And now, you’ve got to do what’s in the musical climate. So, they can’t be seen liking us. In fact, someone said a great thing in Melody Maker the other day. He said that we’re entering a period of the closet Genesis fan—the people who actually listen to us in their spare time, but won’t admit it.
“I like the Sex Pistols. I thought they made great records. They had a lot of energy and the records sounded great. I’ve got some at home on the juke box. But, I mean, they’re the figure head of that period and they sounded good. But then there was also just a lot of crap when everybody was deliberately detuning their guitars and de liberately singing out of tune. With the coming of people like Elvis Costello, The Police, and probably a few others that I’m not aware of, that punk thing started to become more sophisticated and that’s when I started getting interested in it. The Police are one of my favorite bands. I mean, Stewart Copeland’s got an ego the size of this hotel, but he can play. There are lots of bands like Culture Club and Wazoo and ABC and all that. Some of the records are good; some leave me cold.
“This fashion thing goes in fits and starts. The fashion to dance, now, you know, it’s ‘respectable disco,’ I suppose you’d call it. But, it’s not love songs. I mean, I write love songs, really. Very unfashionable thing to do. If you look like Boy George, you can sing a love song like ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me.’ If you’re me and you sing a song like that, you’re accused of being middle-aged. It’s a peculiar set of affairs.”
Phil Collins: Up-Close
The drumming of Phil Collins offers a wealth of opportunities for analysis. We’ve chosen to focus on some of Phil’s work on the Genesis/ABACAB and Hello, I Must Be Going albums, both of which clearly capture his unique drumming style.
Several points of interest stand out in the spot transcriptions below, namely, Phil’s extremely tasteful approach to rock drumming, and the meticulous precision of his playing. Simplicity, taste, precision and inventiveness come together in the playing style of Phil Collins, one of the most prolific rock drummers on the current music scene.